Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn William deBuys


The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures

William deBuys, Little, Brown and Co., 368 pages

Spoiler alert: There are no unicorns in Laos. But don’t blame nature writer William deBuys for trying to find one.

The premise of “The Last Unicorn” is simple: DeBuys tagged along with biologist William Robichaud for a trek through central Laos searching for evidence of an extremely rare animal called a saola. Discovered by most of the world in 1992, saola share some of their DNA with wild cattle, but they are unique for the two horns, growing up to half a meter long, that extend from their head and sweep back over their body. Seen in profile, the horns merge into one, making the animal resemble the mythical beast that legend has it could only be glimpsed by the pure of heart.

The mission was multifold: to look for signs of the elusive animal, dismantle snares set by poachers and install camera traps in hopes of capturing an image long after the expedition was over. The book unfolds as part travelogue, part adventure story and part conservationist screed.

The book will appeal to nonfiction readers who enjoy learning about flora, fauna and people in parts of the world they’ll likely never visit. It’s comforting to know there are people like Robichaud and writers like deBuys who are committed to sharing their stories. It’s even more comforting to know their efforts could result in helping preserve the wildness of this world and the survival of a species.

There is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction

Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor, Viking, 544 pages

In this splendid volume, Saul Bellow does indeed give us much to think about, although many of the essays Benjamin Taylor has selected keep returning to two major themes. First, Bellow’s ceaseless and moving exploration of his vocation as writer and public intellectual. Second, his uncompromising stand on his Jewish identity, of which he was fiercely proud.

Yet he continually resists efforts to classify him as a Jewish writer, preferring to think of himself, as he writes in one essay, as a Jew who has written some books. He writes brilliantly about Jewish writers in America but also about literature in general, from James Joyce and the other giants of modernism to contemporaries like Ralph Ellison.

Taylor includes an astonishing series of interviews that “Goodbye, Columbus” writer Philip Roth conducted with Bellow by fax and letter a few years before Bellow’s death in 2005. In them the Nobel Prize-winning author memorably recalls how he came to write “The Adventures of Augie March” and two other novels from the 1950s. Although Bellow can come across in later essays as ponderous or curmudgeonly, much of what’s here remains remarkably vivid – a quality he prized – and relevant.

Associated Press